Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

Some things are classics, like Jane Austen, The Beatles, and…’80s Prom fashion

For Christmas a few years ago, my brother gave me a book called 642 Things to Write About. I interpreted it as a loving gesture intended to help me hone my craft. He may have meant it as a way to get me to stop writing about my family, in which case he should’ve known that I’m not one to pick up on subtle hints. Besides, I’ll be happy to stop writing about them just as soon as they stop generating material.

But it was a fantastic gift –I’m gonna keep some of these questions in reserve for first dates — and today, Philippa and I are blog-dueling on one of my favorite of the 642 prompts:

What did you wear to Prom? How did you get your outfit, and what happened to it? 

In 1989, when I was a senior at Lake Braddock Secondary School, Prom was a rite of passage; nearly everyone wanted to go, including me. But wanting to go wasn’t enough: I needed a date. With no boyfriend and all of my guy friends spoken for, I started to stress. My good friend Kevin, aware of my situation, did some work behind the scenes and arranged for his pal “Bob” to ask me. Bob and I were acquaintances–  I’d always thought he was cute and nice –so I said “yes” and shifted the focus of my stress to getting a dress.

Fashion was not my forte, but it was one of the multitude of things my eldest sister, Suzi, did perfectly. She was always on point, even when the point seemed to have no point. (Popped collars, anyone?) Her sartorial skill even earned her the nickname “Fashion Plate” from my father. Though I didn’t exactly know what that kind of a plate was, I inferred that if Suzi was a plate, I was a bucket. A bucket with a massive hole at the bottom. The Plate, who was in her fourth year at UVA in Charlottesville, sensed my plight and offered to take me shopping without my even having to ask. I had only one criterion: I didn’t want my dress to look like everyone else’s.

“Then come down to C’ville and we’ll go shopping here,” she said. So I did.

Together, we went to Fashion Square Mall, affectionately referred to as “Fashion Scare,” and visited every store that carried dresses. Whatever allotment of patience was supposed to have been spread across me and my three siblings, Suzi got all of it, never seeming to tire of coming up with candidates for me to try on. To my untrained eye, though the dresses tried to combine different elements – sleeves poofed in direct proportion to the wearer’s bangs, bows capable of covering not just a butt but an entire zip code, ruffled bottoms – they all wound up looking the same. And they came in shiny, saccharine-sweet pinks, greens and blues that made my teeth hurt. I didn’t exactly know what my taste was, but I knew it wasn’t that. Suzi knew it too.

Eventually we wound up at an all-dress joint whose name escapes me, where my sister managed to pluck from the masses something my eyes would have skipped right over: a long, straight, black, strapless number with white piping along the top and a black and white skirt-like, slightly ruffled thing at the waist. Suzi informed me the functionally irrelevant skirty thing was a peplum (coincidence that it bears a close phonetic resemblance to “pablum”? I think not.). I guess the dress needed something to help it compete with my shelf of bangs. Regardless, Suzi nailed it. She’d found a dress that was not only different but made me feel grown-up and somewhat sophisticated.

Remember these?

On Prom night, Mom helped me get ready and then she, Dad, my brother and I went to the living room to take pictures while we waited for the limo bearing Bob and four of his friends to show up. Little did we know we would have had time not only to take photos, but to drive to the nearest Fotomat and have the film developed while we waited because, two hours after the appointed time, Bob still hadn’t arrived.

Am I being stood up?, I thought, just as my father said, “Do you think you’re being stood up?”

Mortification caused me to spontaneously combust, so now you know what happened to the dress.

I’m kidding, of course. Spontaneous combustion was a prayer that had gone cruelly unanswered.

I got the phone book and called one of the other girls, who said, “You mean Bob didn’t call to tell you they just left Scott’s house?” Uh, no, he didn’t.

When Bob finally arrived, I vaporized him on the spot. I’m kidding, of course. Vaporization was just another unanswered prayer. (For Bob too, if I had to guess.) Our group went to dinner and made it to Prom just before it ended. It still counted.

It took me a little while to thaw out, but after graduation, Bob and I stayed friends and went off to UVA. The dress did, too. I wore it to a formal in the Spring of 1990, with my then-best friend, Paul, as my date. Say what you will about the dress, but that particular friendship never went out of style.

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As my friend Michelle put it, “Your dress is the least offensive by far.”

 

Team Yank celebrates a Hall of Famer

[My pal Philippa and I have just kicked off our version of National Blog Posting Month, where we cover the whole month by alternating days. It’s supposed to jump start my writing, or my insomnia, or both…]

Last weekend, my brother was inducted into the West Springfield High School Athletic Hall of Fame’s inaugural class: a very big deal.

L.J. never would have described it in those terms — “don’t get a big head” was one of my father’s mantras when my siblings and I were growing up, plus my brother is a humble team-player by nature–but statistics don’t lie.

As a right-handed pitcher for the West Springfield varsity baseball squad from 1991-1993, he helped the team win a State Championship, pitched on the silver medal-winning USA Junior National Team, landed repeat berths on the Washington Post’s All-Met Team, and was named the All-Met Player of the Year in 1993.  When the Minnesota Twins made him an 18th round draft pick in 1993, he opted instead to accept a full athletic scholarship to Georgia Tech, an engineering and Division 1 baseball powerhouse. In his first year on the talent-loaded Tech team, he helped pitch the team to its first-ever College World Series appearance. He was a perennial ACC Honor Roll-er, a two-time academic All-American, and the recipient of Tech’s prestigious Total Person Award in 1998, an honor given annually to two student athletes who excel on the field, in class, and in the community. (Did I mention that he’s also a nice guy? It’s true.) He closed out his pitching career at Tech with a record of 25-4, the third-best in Tech’s history at the time. When the Atlanta Braves drafted him in 1998, L.J. was not just a member of the team’s pitching staff but also its only engineer. During five seasons, he pitched four hundred-plus innings in over 100 games on Braves teams in Macon, Myrtle Beach, Greenville (SC), and Richmond. He made it to AAA before injuries nudged him off the field.

Though he’d had a spectacular run, its ending was without spectacle, so this whole Hall of Fame thing gave our tribe an opportunity, however belated, to give my brother’s accomplishments their due. I can’t speak for anyone else in the family, but I really needed that second chance.

It’s not that I hadn’t known my brother was an incredible athlete; of course I did. I’d been aware that he was a gifted pitcher long before he got to West Springfield, though that’s when his true potential really began to show. Unfortunately, I simply failed to appreciate that time. I had just started college and was not merely determined but flat-out defiant about blazing my own, non-baseball trail. This might have been fine if I’d had any idea where that trail should go —navigation has never been my strong suit –or what my own potential was.  But I didn’t. So at the precise moment when I should’ve been cheering L.J. on with the rest of Team Yank, I was busy trudging through the Great Seeking Swamp (a place that’s easy to get stuck in but turns out not to be all that deep), my progress hampered by the fact that I had blinders on and my nose in my navel.  I went to my brother’s big games, but those gorgeous curve balls, sinkers and sliders whizzed past me just like they did all those hapless batters. I wasn’t present. When I emerged from the Swamp, at about the time when L.J. was heading to Tech, Team Yank didn’t act like I’d spent a couple of years warming the bench. I knew I had, though, and I knew I’d missed out on some great stuff.

So when the Hall of Fame news broke, I reacted with what my brother probably saw as extraordinary enthusiasm. It’s not every day that a family member gets inducted into a Hall of Fame, and it’s certainly not every day that you get a second chance. A second chance may not be the same as a clean slate, because that botched first attempt lives on in your memory (and who knows where else), but that’s exactly what makes second chances so great: remembering what you screwed up the first time frees you up to make an altogether different mistake the next time. Or to learn from it. Or both.

Instead of reprising my role as benchwarmer, this time I helped rally Team Yank. Together, we compiled a video commemorating L.J.’s greatest moments, both on and off the field. It was some of our better work. In a nod to Dad’s “don’t get a big head” mantra, the off-the-field segment was part roast and part heartfelt tribute. There were cameo appearances by family, friends, and L.J.’s mullet (yes, the mullet was of such magnitude as to warrant a separate credit). There was a dramatic re-enactment of my brother’s pitching career, featuring every member of the family and the music of, who else, Barry Manilow.

But the real scene-stealer was L.J. After the ceremony and after we’d watched the video, when he’d earned the right to bask in the glow of his accomplishments and our family pride, my brother refused to stand in the spotlight by himself.

“Anything I’ve done, I didn’t do alone,” he said.

Whether or not we all agreed with L.J.’s words, they shouldn’t have surprised us. I scoured a bunch of old articles in the weeks leading up to the induction ceremony, and in every article that praised my brother, he credited and thanked his team, his teachers, his coaches. It seems he understood even 20 years ago the value of humility, and that you strive not so much for individual gain but to elevate those around you. I couldn’t be prouder of my brother, for what he’s done and who he is. And I think I speak for all of Team Yank when I say he’s definitely helped me raise my game.

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A few pearls of wisdom, Yank-ed straight from the strand

People sometimes refer to my father as “a character.” The label probably fits, since he’s given me plenty of writing material, along with a book title. But I’ve also come to appreciate both him and Mom as unheralded fonts of wisdom. (On reading this, I bet the two of them will smack their foreheads: Forty-five years of sacrifice and they get one laudatory line in a blog. Not even a T-shirt.)

In honor of Father’s Day, I decided to cull through the various pieces of advice Dad has given me over the years and share five of my favorites:

  • “Do something, even if it’s wrong!” This sounds like an invitation to make rash decisions, but it wasn’t. It was Dad’s call to action any time we kids found ourselves frozen at the precise moment when a swift move was needed. On one such occasion, our family of six had gone crabbing on a brackish creek below an unused bridge in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Crabbing required nothing more than string, raw chicken, and a long-handled net, so it was a budget-friendly activity and we loved it. On the day in question, my parents had set us up with long pieces of string, a chicken part tied tightly at one end of each piece. With the string properly baited, all we kids had to do was hang on to the un-baited end and toss the chicken towards the water. Two measly steps– hang on, and toss –that’s all we had to remember. Yet one of us somehow forgot Step 1, causing the chicken to careen gracelessly through the air, hit the water with a resounding smack, and then sink, destined to become an all-you-can-eat buffet for our prey unless Dad managed to scoop it out. Like a surgeon who must keep his eyes glued to the patient, my father had to keep a bead on the sinking fowl. This meant someone had to hand him the net, and fast. Unlike a surgeon, Dad used something considerably louder than an Operating Theater Voice when he asked us to get him the net. The net, being no dummy, always chose moments like this to disappear. The four of us might have too, had panic not rooted us to our spots like 200 year-old redwoods. Soon we heard, “Do something, even if it’s wrong!” One of us, probably Suzi, snapped to attention and got the net. (I know it wasn’t me because I’m pretty sure I’m the one who forgot the “hang on” part.) I haven’t gone crabbing in a while, but that advice comes back to me whenever I need to be reminded that the regret of inaction will haunt me more than a mistake. It usually works, once I stop laughing.
  • Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you.” When I was a kid, this one cracked me up because it made no sense at all. Dad grew up on a farm in small-town Pennsylvania, so maybe he saw the occasional bear. We, on the other hand, lived in Springfield, Virginia, and even your most navigationally challenged bear was not inclined to roam the D.C. suburbs. We were carnivores, yes, but we stuck to beef, chicken and pork. I soon learned that saying was just Dad’s way of acknowledging that sometimes things don’t work out, a useful corollary to “Do something, even if it’s wrong!” Though I can’t speak for my siblings, I’ve given more than a few bears a case of indigestion.
  • “Hit ’em where they ain’t.” My father loves baseball and, as the coach of an American Legion team for over 25 years, has dispensed this piece of advice to his players (including my brother) hundreds of times. I’ve come to view it as not just the foundation for a winning offensive strategy but also a good metaphor. You don’t get an infinite number of at-bats, whether on the diamond or in life, and you have no control over pitch selection, so try not to waste the juicy ones.
  • “You know you can call it off if you want to.” In 1995, I was engaged to be married and living with my parents to save money. I had dated my fiancé for four years –we’d lived together for one of those –and an argument we had about careers had exposed larger, crucial conflicts we couldn’t resolve. I didn’t know how I felt about the relationship or our future. Yet the venue was already booked, a dress had been bought, and invitations were about to go out, so what could I do? Canceling it didn’t seem like an option. Soap opera characters did that sort of thing all the time but I didn’t know anyone in real life who had. As the days passed, my stress increased and I took up running as a way to deal with it. My parents didn’t say much about my new habit, so I figured they thought nothing of it. When I returned from a run one December afternoon and sat on the couch to catch my breath, Dad lowered the newspaper he was reading, looked at me, and said, “You know you can call it off if you want to.” And then he went right back to reading the paper. He’d been paying attention, all right. With a single sentence, Dad made sure I understood my happiness trumped lost venue deposits, a beautiful but useless dress, and the embarrassment of admitting I’d made a huge mistake. This episode and those words sprang to mind again in 2011 and gave me the encouragement I needed to end my ruinous marriage to the Lawnmower.
  • “That’s why you work.” This one’s a comparatively recent entry. When we were kids, we often heard Dad say, “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” I took this to mean we should plan and save, something he and Mom excelled at. Making a single government salary stretch as far as those two did required serious skills in either gratification delay or money laundering. And I doubt it was the latter, otherwise they wouldn’t have had to wait until retirement to do all of their traveling. I was unaware of it at the time, but they made (and still make) enormous sacrifices for us because they, like most parents, want us to live better than they did. Since all four of us seem to be doing okay, Dad now encourages us to enjoy some of our earnings in the moment, responding to my Costa Rica trip announcement with a smile and a hearty, “That’s why you work.” Yep, Dad, that’s why. And also because it doesn’t grow on trees.

Happy Father’s Day to a true all-star, a Hall of Famer, and a legend in all the ways that matter. We love you, Dad!

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Celebrating 50 Years of Team Yank with a 21-Fun Salute

My parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on April 16.

Fifty years of marriage —600 months –is a big deal. A very big deal. I can’t begin to comprehend such a feat, especially considering my marriage to the Lawnmower lasted two percent as long. My siblings and I were determined to make a very big deal of this very big deal. We booked a private room at Fireworks, a cool pizza and craft brew joint in Arlington, for a celebratory Team Yank dinner and invited Mom and Dad’s siblings to join us.

I woke up on the morning of the party feeling an odd mix of emotions: unadulterated joy for my parents on reaching this milestone, gratitude to them for showing us that people and love matter most of all, nostalgia for our years together as a family, and an unrealistic but understandable desire to hold on to all of this, and them, forever. As I drove to my parents’ house to spend some pre-party time with my brother and his family, those emotions formed a swell of sentiment that threatened to crest. To stay ahead of the wave, I cranked up a few of my favorite Earth Wind and Fire songs, and that got me to my parents’ house. The Roommates happened to be there too, a sight that never fails to improve my mood.

An hour and a half later, I was wrapping up my visit and getting ready to run some party-related errands and Emily, who may have detected that swell of emotions rising up in her aunt, said, “Can I come with you?”

As we got in the car, I told her she’d made my day. The minute we backed out of the driveway, we lowered the windows, opened the sunroof, and fired up our favorite tunes in preparation for a rolling dance party. We hit our stride twenty minutes later when she cued up “Walkin’ on Sunshine,” complete with air guitars and arms-through-the-open-roof dance moves. I was feeling so sunny I almost didn’t mind having to go to Michael’s: we needed a frame for one of the gifts we’d gotten my parents. Emily, who is Arts and Crafts people, was elated about this pit stop, so I didn’t feel guilty about using her as a human shield as we entered the store.  We knocked out our task in short order and had a little extra time, so I told her to pick something out for herself.

In a move that just might land her a spot on our Peeps squad next year, she asked, “Can I get a glue gun?”

Off we went, me carrying a frame and Emily concealed-carrying some Elmer’s. When we got to my house, we assembled the gift, grabbed the fancy gold wrapping paper I’d bought and some tape, threw it all in a bag, and Uber’d over to the restaurant. We got everything set up and needed only to wrap the gift. That job required the perfection of my sister Suzi, but I knew when she arrived she’d be busy setting up a cake she had decorated (flawlessly, no doubt). I decided to give it my best shot. I put Emily in charge of handing me pieces of tape, a job she performed admirably. The super-fancy paper I’d bought, however, seemed repulsed by a pedestrian adhesive like scotch tape. We couldn’t get it to stick, no matter what we did.

Emily’s eyes met mine and I said what she had to be thinking, “Get the glue gun.” As the two of us hot-glued wrapping paper seams together, I noted that such a thing would never happen to Aunt Suzi.

“I know, right?” Em said. “I just wish she’d make a mistake sometime.” We finished the job just as Suzi was coming in with her perfect cake. Shortly thereafter, the aunt/uncle contingent arrived, followed by the rest of my siblings and their families, and then, to round out our 21-person gang, my parents.

My Aunt Kate, who is no slouch in the Fun Aunt department, sent my parents out of the room and closed the door so she could give them a proper wedding-style introduction like they got 50 years ago. Mom and Dad pranced in, arm-in-arm, and took a few twirls around our tiny dance floor. The party had begun.

After we’d all stuffed ourselves with delicious Italian fare, my siblings and I got the official program underway. We had decided that each person would share a favorite memory or story, and that my brother would give a toast at the end. We planned to go in order from oldest kid to youngest, but we didn’t coordinate our remarks with each other at all. I looked forward to my siblings’ stories. Though we have close relationships with each other and our parents, each of those relationships is a little bit different, and I love getting a glimpse into what they look like.

Suzi reminisced about the years in high school during which she had to sell citrus fruit as part of a fundraiser. Because Suzi’s always had a real knack for sales, for a few weeks every fall our home looked like a Tropicana warehouse. My father would spend hours driving her around, helping her deliver pound upon pound of fruit. Then Suzi mentioned my mother’s willingness to do absolutely anything for her kids and grandkids, including dropping everything a decade ago to help my sister out on a spur-of-the-moment trip to Philly and New York with Suzi’s three boys.

Lynne took a slightly different tack. Known as the “feisty” one when we were kids, she told a hilarious story about a doubles tennis match with my father gone seriously awry. Though she and Dad didn’t win that day, at least she, unlike me, managed not to bean her parental tennis partner in the back of the head. Lynne also talked about how my parents never lose sight of the little things that make us feel loved. In Lynne’s case, one of those little things is liverwurst, which my parents always keep in the fridge for her. (Maybe it’s just me, but if liverwurst is an act of love, I’d hate to see a show of hostility.) She also reminded us that, fifteen years ago, when Lynne had broken her arm and I had come down with bronchitis, Mom launched her own Meals On Wheels program, loading Dad up with tortellini soup for delivery to me and Lynne.

The stories my sisters told led precisely to the point I intended to make: even though Mom and Dad were a “them” long before the rest of us showed up, my parents have never, ever been about them. As I was making that point, that wave of emotions, which had continued to gather momentum all afternoon, got fully organized and swamped me. I pieced myself back together sufficiently to talk about how we get only tiny reminders of Mom and Dad as a “them,” such as when I watched them dance at my cousin’s wedding two summers ago. Or when they decided to go to Alaska in the summer of 2014 and I joined them, wanting to take in the “them” and their enjoyment. I will never forget the experience of riding in a small plane with them, landing on a glacier (on purpose, don’t worry), and actually setting foot on it. I watched the two of them stare in slack-jawed awe and I listened as they reveled in nature’s magnificence. They were right, it was astonishing, but to me the real natural wonders were the two of them and what they built together. As I was finishing my story, that infernal wave pummeled me again so I handed things over to L.J.

My brother began by sketching out memories in broad strokes, like the gift-laden Christmas mornings that began so early they were really still Christmas Eves, and our annual week-long vacations in the Outer Banks. Then L.J. talked about his baseball career, which my father nurtured at all points, first by hitting countless flies after work and on Sunday mornings after church, and then, when my brother went to Georgia Tech on a full athletic scholarship, telling my brother to leave him a ticket for games “in case I can make it.” I wasn’t surprised to hear that my father made it, every single time, sometimes even with Mom and always with her help. When L.J. reached the minor leagues – a place where dreams are big and salaries small –Dad handed him a literal blank check, something I never knew. And my brother had kept it all these years. As L.J. held it up, it seemed the same wave that hit me might have splashed onto him just a little bit too.

At last it was time for the toast, which reminded all of us that my brother handles words even more expertly than he does a baseball. He mentioned that Team Yank, which may not have won every game over the past 50 years but has a very solid record, has the attributes of the all-time great teams, like chemistry, strong fundamentals, and passion. He quoted Babe Ruth, who said, “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” That’s Team Yank in a nutshell: we love to play together, and when we do, we’re at our collective and individual best. Then we raised a glass to the greatest team any of us could ever hope to play on.

The party ended there but the story does not. Suzi and her family were staying with me, so we loaded up their car with all the leftovers. My brother-in-law drove so Suzi could sit in the passenger seat and hold the remaining half of that perfectly decorated cake on the ride home. We pulled into my driveway and I opened the car door just in time to hear a sound that looked just like this:

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The Cake Splat: No, of course it couldn’t have landed on the box, silly!

I couldn’t decide whether to call Emily or to get a piece of chalk so I could draw an outline around the cake where it died. It is perhaps fitting that four of us spent the waning moments of April 16 doing what Team Yank does best: laughing hysterically while batting cleanup.

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All 21 of us, in varying states of saying “Parmesan!” Sometimes plain ol’ “cheese” works best…

 

 

 

 

What ‘good grief’ really means

Like most people, I loathe funerals. And as regular readers know, I’m not very good at them.

It’s not that I don’t know what to do or say: I give great hugs and I usually know the right words (sometimes I even sing them). But I just can’t make my upper lip stiffen, no matter how how hard I’m trying to avoid putting my grieving loved one in a position of having to comfort me. I blow it every time, and Saturday was no exception.

My friend T’s younger sister Gina passed away suddenly, just over a week ago, and her funeral took place on Saturday.

I became friends with T several years ago through work, where she’s as strong, successful, and poised as sales executives come. T’s one of four sisters with whom she’s close, and she’s not much older than I am. That makes her far too young to lose a cherished sibling, in my book. The pages of my book, in fact, depict a dreamy fairytale landscape where siblings are always around. I need those pages to look like that because my brother and sisters are my best friends. They make me laugh so hard my face hurts, they stand ready to hug me at my happiest and saddest times, and they love me no matter how badly I screw up (something I have tested, alas). I simply can’t imagine life without them. Until Saturday, I had refused even to let such an awful thought enter my brain. Saturday morning, however, that thought saw no need to ask for permission; it just barged its way to the front of my mind and heart as I approached T at the funeral home.

One look at my friend proved that absorbing a staggering loss on a balance sheet is one thing and in life another altogether. No kind of training prepares you for the latter, not even intellectual awareness that big love sometimes means big pain. The sorrow on T’s face telegraphed the enormity of her grief. I hated what it meant for her, and what it might mean for me someday. Overwhelmed, I was in tears long before I reached her. So much for putting my friend’s needs ahead of my own.

Then the ceremony got underway and I learned about Gina, a woman I’d never met but soon wished I had. Everyone who spoke mentioned her generosity of heart, the way she loved unconditionally and her capacity to love people through flaws most of us couldn’t abide. Her family members poked gentle fun at some of her quirks –evidently she loved to plan events, which meant you’d better head for the hills when she started writing the to-do lists–but to a person they painted a portrait of someone who was a nurturer by nature, a superwoman who took care of anyone who needed it. Gina didn’t let her loved ones get away with any crap, but they knew she always had their backs.

In describing Gina’s steadfast loyalty, no matter the circumstances, T’s son said, “I could be dead wrong, and I knew she’d be standing right there, being dead wrong too.” I laughed with the crowd while thinking that’s exactly the kind of aunt I aspire to be (minus the event-planning part). So whether she ever set out to or not, T’s sister set an example, even for a total stranger like myself.

(Speaking of setting great examples, I give very high marks to the way the family structured the service. A few relatives and friends had been selected to speak about Ts sister, and according to the program, had been allotted two minutes apiece. But we all know emotions can make it easy to lose track of time. So in a nod to one of the more redeeming feature of the Oscars, the minister notified the speakers that, if they were still talking at two minutes, the organist would begin to play. If they kept going, well, so would the organist, and he was gonna crank up the volume. I can only hope T starts to run meetings this way.)

No matter how hard you try to smile through the tears, it hurts like hell to say goodbye to someone who set an example like Gina clearly did. It’s like losing the coach who not only knew how it was done but taught you everything you ever knew, the one you counted on to keep you motivated when you faltered. The minister acknowledged that pain while exhorting all present to use Gina’s example to examine our lives and repair any dysfunctional relationships we might have.

I liked that call to action. I heard it as a reminder to live well not because life could end at any moment –we all know it could –but rather to honor the beautiful example someone left us by doing similar good works.

I left the funeral home in tears, but glad to have been there. Though I absolutely stink at funerals, I go because I believe it’s important to show up for your loved ones whenever you can. Never once have I regretted going, and every single time I walk away having learned something important. In getting up close to a loss that terrifies me, I realized T’s sister will live on not just in memory –a fickle and increasingly unreliable thing as the years pass –but in the actions of those whose lives she touched.

May we all live, and leave, so well.

When I saw my sister Lynne last night, I told her about the funeral. In an impressive display of sibling rivalry, she assured me she's going to go first.

When I saw my sister Lynne last night, I told her about the funeral. In an impressive display of sibling rivalry, she assured me she’s going to go first.

 

 

 

The Force Awakened, and it also tested our mettle

My brother, L.J., and his family came up from Atlanta for Christmas this year. Their holiday visits tend to be chaotic, and this one promised to be particularly so since my dad was still navigating some health issues. (He’s doing much, much better, and thanks to all the kind souls who asked.)

Always a realist, my brother scaled back his expectations and said, “I just want to do one thing while I’m up here: see the Star Wars movie.”

He had one other condition: he wanted to go with me and Mom, the two people he’d seen the original movie with in 1977. Star Wars made a huge impression on me and my brother, and nowhere was that impression more evident than in L.J.’s Christmas list, which included requests for the Death Star, the Millennium Falcon, an X-wing fighter, and enough action figures to man the whole enterprise. (I was glad he asked for those things, because it freed up space on my list.) Over the next several years, he and I spent hours and hours re-enacting battles we’d seen and fighting new ones.

When The Empire Strikes Back came out in 1980, Mom made sure L.J. and I were among the first in line for tickets at the Springfield Mall, which I believe required her to take us out of school a few hours early. Mom wasn’t the type to let me and my siblings miss school even if we handed her a burst appendix, so this was an event of epic proportions. We treated Return of the Jedi with similar reverence, and The Force continued to strengthen in us.

L.J. and I, along with millions of other Star Wars fans, spent the next 16 years waiting patiently for the prequels. Though my brother lived in Atlanta by then, we managed to see one of those movies together, both of us likely operating under the mistaken belief that the company would somehow improve the experience.

High expectations for those movies, we had. Test our faith in the franchise, they did.

Yet because The Force remained strong in us, we kept our hopes alive for the latest installment and snagged tickets for a daytime showing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens on December 23. To ensure the Jedi tradition would be passed down to the next generation, we brought my niece and four nephews with us. (We weren’t able to pull Mom away from her post at home, alas.) For old times’ sake, I sat next to my brother.

As the introductory text began its trademark scroll up the screen and off into space, accompanied by an unmistakably John Williams score, L.J. leaned over and whispered, “I’ve got chills.”

To my astonishment, I did too. And that’s when I realized I had more than mere hopes riding on this movie, I had pinned actual needs to it. I needed to feel like a little kid again, to have this space opera engross me so thoroughly that, for at least two hours, I could forget some of the realities of life in middle age. Not that middle age is bad, mind you, because it isn’t at all. But if I had to express a complaint on behalf of forty-somethings, it’s that people both way older and way younger than us seem to expect us to be utterly dependable and responsible, whereas we’re not supposed to need anybody. Never mind that being responsible and dependable to these people, whom we love dearly, is the very least we can do and a privilege. Sometimes even the most responsible among us gets a little petulant and longs for the days when bad stuff was mainly imaginary and could be vaporized with the swing of a light saber.

I was feeling that longing just as The Force Awakens came out. I needed to go hurtling back to a time long, long ago and a galaxy far, far away, a place where good guys are too busy battling the Dark Side to worry about things like gum grafts.

I won’t give away any details about the movie in case you haven’t seen it, but it’s enough to say that it gave me what I needed and then some. It was a two-hour nostalgia trip at light speed that left me and my brother elated as we walked out of the theater. The Force Awakens rekindled our love for the franchise, solidified our bond to the past, and gave us plenty of hope for the future.

My brother summed it up perfectly when he compared it to the best kind of old friendships: “We picked up right where we left off.”

 

I think I'll hang on to this one.

I think I’ll hang on to this one.

 

On International Lefthanders Day, a love note to my Southpaw sisters

[Day 13 in a month of daily blogging with my pal and partner in crime, Philippa Hughes.]

Today is International Lefthanders Day, which I have chosen to celebrate by writing about two of my favorite lefties: my sisters Suzi and Lynne. (By the way, yesterday was National Middle Child Day, which I didn’t hear about until last night. Figures. We middle kids are used to delayed recognition.)

Yesterday’s post about Mom mentioned in passing that Suzi is one of those annoying firstborns who does nearly everything perfectly. On reading it, Suzi thought I overstated her abilities, but for once, I wasn’t exaggerating. If you don’t believe me, take a look at this cake she made.

Suzi cake pic

Do you have any idea what it was like to grow up behind the likes of someone who produces that? On a regular basis? To make matters worse, Suzi is so blasted nice you end up liking her in spite of yourself. On top of that, as I’ve seen time and again over the course of my life, and particularly when I was trying to figure out how to exit a dangerous marriage in 2011, Suzi knows what it means to be a big sister.

My sister Lynne also had a perfectionistic side. When we were kids, it manifested in a form of extreme neatness. She claimed it as a virtue, but I would’ve called “OCD” if only I’d heard of the term back then. Lynne kept her clothes in perfect order in the closet and her dresser, and she always knew if Suzi or I breached the perimeter of either location, even if we never took anything. (I suspect Lynne dusted for prints.)

I, on the other hand, did not keep my clothes, or any other tangible items, in perfect order at any time, anywhere. This might not have mattered had Lynne and I not shared a room for over a decade. In terms of rigidity and orderliness, Lynne’s side of the room resembled Germany, whereas mine look like Rome at rush hour. This and our very sibling-ness made us natural enemies. Like Snoopy and the Red Baron, fighting was our default –we did it well, often, and comically –but on those rare occasions when we got along, the two of us were tight. Lynne went to college in 1987, and she was sentenced to live in a triple. Right about then our bond began to increase, perhaps because I started to look pretty good, as roommates go. Not only have the two of us grown closer since, but Lynne actually invited me to live with her in 2011 while I was getting divorced. Clearly she’s no slouch in the big sister department, either.

I view the closeness my sisters and I enjoy as a daily gift, and Suzi and Lynne rank high on my list of preferred company. Time together can be hard to come by, now that we have jobs, husbands, kids and podcasts, so we usually treasure it when it happens.

The last time the three of us spent a stretch of time together was in February, right after my father’s cousin, Chuckie, passed away. Dad and his cousins were tight, so my sisters and I knew Dad would take this loss particularly hard, and we wanted to be there for him. Being there for him, in this case, meant driving to West Pittston, PA, a mid-week trip of 250 miles for me and Lynne and 350 for Suzi. We called each other to coordinate, and that’s when the typical Yankosky logistical circus began.

My parents, who are retired and had the time to spend the night in West Pittston, figured they would drive up by themselves. Suzi and I, who could take the day off but couldn’t spend the night, thought we could meet near my office and drive up and back in the same day together. Lynne said she might or might not be able to get away, but if she could, she didn’t know exactly when, and it would only be for the day, so maybe she would just drive up and back in the same day all by herself. When my parents got wind of Lynne’s plan, they offered to change their plans and do something even crazier in what they saw as an effort to get Lynne out of her own way.

Right about then, just as I was ready to take that gift of daily closeness and drop-kick it into a dumpster, Suzi hit everyone over the head with the big billy club o’ sanity. She convinced Mom and Dad to go up on their own and spent the night, and she and I came up with a plan for Lynne to join us as we drove up and back on the same day.

The three of us did not relish the idea of a 10-hour drive interrupted only by a funereal pit stop, yet against all odds, we had an absolute blast in the car together. We talked, we laughed, we sang, and without even thinking about it, we reveled in each other’s company. The three of us had not had an opportunity to spend time like that in many, many years. I’d have preferred to have spent it on a beach rather than trapped inside Lynne’s Mazda, but hey, you take it where you can get it. And it did all three of us a world of good.

So happy Lefthanders Day, you two. For a couple of Southpaws, you’re all right.

 

 

 

Dating stories: the perfect gift for any occasion

My sister Lynne’s birthday was yesterday. The local Yanks—my parents, my brother-in-law, the Roommates and I –usually mark such occasions by having dinner at the restaurant of the birthday person’s choice, but this time, the birthday girl said she wanted to have dinner at home.

That didn’t bother the Roommates, because their only requirement for a successful birthday celebration is ice cream cake and that’s always consumed at home. Nor did it faze my parents, whose car could drive itself to Lynne’s house by now. And I certainly didn’t mind the change of venue, since dinner at someone else’s home (even a relative’s) doesn’t demand much more from me than a restaurant dinner does. In fact, my only job was to show up and bring a salad. Though not asked to, I opted to bring a bottle of wine, too. I find it compensates for a lot, lest I screw up the dish assigned to me or, more likely, forget it altogether.

While I got down to the important business of slicing avocados and undoing the screwtop on the wine, not necessarily in that order, my brother-in-law Paul fired up kebabs on the grill. After a tasty, relaxing dinner topped off with ice cream cake, when we’d have been paying the tab at a restaurant, we instead lingered at the table. And that’s when dinner really started to get good.

When you’re the family’s only single person, they look at you almost as they do a hyena at the zoo: they’re fascinated by this creature that thrives in the eat-what-you-kill world, but they don’t necessarily want to experience it firsthand. This means my family loves to hear dating stories, even if just to make them glad they don’t live on the Serengeti of romance.

So that’s how I found myself telling a story about why I didn’t buy tickets to this Friday night’s Lyle Lovett concert, even though I really wanted to go. It’s not that tickets weren’t available, it’s that I didn’t have a suitable date.

I don’t usually care whether I have a date. I’m perfectly happy, often outright thrilled, to go to the movies, dinner, and even weddings solo. But a concert at Wolf Trap by one of my favorite showmen? It’s an experience that’s meant to be shared, and with the right company, which for me means someone who would appreciate both Lyle and me. Two of my go-to concert guys had conflicts, but I thought my friend “Brian,” an attractive, nice, and recently divorced guy, might fit the bill.

On July 27 I texted him the following:

By chance are you free August 14? There’s a concert I really want to go to and I was hoping to convince you to join me. 🙂

Brian, though a great guy, is not the most punctual responder, so I hardly noticed that it took him 5 hours to write back. After thanking me for the invitation, he promised to check his calendar and get back to me “tomorrow.”

I let two tomorrows go by before I sent a breezy, “Hi there! How are things looking for August 14?” He texted two hours later to say that he was free and to ask what the event was.

I responded immediately, thinking we might be on the verge of actually making plans:

Cool! If you’re up for it, Lyle Lovett and his Large Band (that’s really what they call themselves) are at Wolf Trap. I got dragged to see him years ago, expecting nothing, and they wowed me so I see them every chance I get. If it’s not your thing, feel free to pass, of course.

Thanks to the wonders of iPhones, I knew Brian had read my text right away, yet he didn’t respond. I let a tomorrow pass and then another one, and then I took out a Mob hit on him. I’m kidding, of course. As far as you know.

At this point in the story, my sister, who met Brian at a book event and declared him both nice and good-looking, could no longer contain herself. She embarked on a three-minute rant loaded with righteous, if vicarious, indignation that ended when she pounded the table and said, “He’s a FLAKE! But this isn’t about me.”

Without missing a beat, my brother-in-law deadpanned, “Are you sure?”

My parents had said nothing but their facial expressions spoke volumes (comprised entirely of four-letter words). I feared I was about to lose control of the room. The last thing the hyena wants is a bunch of non-prey littering the landscape, so I jumped back in and said I’d handled it my own way.

I explained my conclusion that, even if Brian responded eventually, eventually wasn’t going to cut it. I wanted, and deserved, enthusiasm, and not about Lyle Lovett, but about me. I’ve been alive long enough to know that even flakes know how to show enthusiasm when they really want to.

Out of some bizarre and misplaced sense of etiquette, which I blame entirely on my mother, I told them I’d felt compelled to close the loop with Brian, so I texted, “I ended up not getting tickets after all, so you’re off the hook.” Never mind that he and the hook hadn’t even been in the same ocean as far as I could tell.

Dad stood up, out of disgust, butt fatigue, or some combination of the two, and we started to gather up the cake plates. As my mother and father made their way out the door, we all agreed we wouldn’t have stuck around at a restaurant long enough to have had that conversation.

Mom said, “We should do this every few weeks,” and Lynne seconded the motion.

Guess I’d better get back out on the plains.

[Here’s one of the songs I won’t be hearing Friday night…]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Little brothers: you can’t teach ’em anything.

While at the pool during last weekend’s family reunion, my brother asked me to give him some swimming pointers. I cracked up.

The idea that I could teach L.J. anything about sports technique represented a serious perversion of the natural athletic order. My brother played college baseball for Georgia Tech and then went on to pitch in the minor leagues. He was a professional athlete, for heaven’s sake! After he gave up baseball, he took up tennis, which he dabbled in as a kid. Once he really put his mind to it, he became a force to be reckoned with and was one-half of a duo that won the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association’s City Championships in 2005 or so. In short, if L.J. so much as thinks about taking up a sport, he’s probably going to excel at it. So even though my brother is four years younger than I am, when it comes to sports, it’s always felt like he’s my senior.

But having swum for most of my life, coached a team, and taught countless kids how to swim, I know what I’m doing in the water, whereas L.J., saw little reason to spend time at the pool unless the concession stand was open. And though he took lessons briefly –my parents insisted that we all learn how to swim as a survival skill –he had no interest whatsoever in the sport of swimming. On mentally reviewing our respective backgrounds, I decided maybe I could show him a thing or two after all.

The lifeguards blew the whistle to start the 15-minute adult swim period, giving us time and space to work. I told L.J. to swim a few yards so I could observe, but really, I just needed some time to adjust to this role reversal.

My brother pushed off from the wall and I watched with a mixture of amazement and envy as he knocked out five near-perfect strokes of high-elbowed, long-reaching freestyle. This, after nothing more than a few lessons as a kid. The only thing wrong with his stroke was his kick: his legs dragged motionless below him like passengers in an unseaworthy dinghy. But that’s a pretty small flaw in the grand scheme of swimming.

He came up for air expecting me to deliver an extended critique, but all I had for him were coaching bytes: “Stretch your arms out longer, keep your elbow high as you throw your arm forward, and don’t let your hips sag.” It’s the same advice I’d give to advanced swimmers, ones who already have good technique but know they need to make minor adjustments to achieve the holy grail of efficiency.  Any swim coach will tell you that success hinges on proper execution of the lazy person’s credo: go as far as you can with as little effort as possible.

My brother seemed almost disappointed and said, “That’s it?” I nodded. “Then why do I feel like I’m dying every time I do it?” A fat, juicy chance to remind my little brother that he was still my little brother was dangling right in front of me, but I couldn’t bring myself to touch it. I told him the truth instead.

“It’s only because you don’t do it often enough,” I said. “Your stroke is excellent. It’s just a matter of conditioning.”

“Really?” That one-word question, which my brother asked with absolute sincerity, says so much about him. He’s good, if not exceptional, at most things he tries, but he seems to have no idea just how good he is, and he has zero swagger. It’s the kind of thing that makes me not just love him but like him.

“Yep,” I said. “If you swam more than 20 yards a year you’d be great.” And by “great,” I meant “Michael Phelps,” but no big sister worth her salt would give up something like that.

Still, Marc Brown, creator of the beloved children’s series Arthur, really knew what he was talking about when he said, “Sometimes being a brother is even better than being a superhero.”

Fatherhood: another thing my brother is really, really good at.

Fatherhood: another thing my brother is really, really good at.

 

Coach Yank: in a league of his own

The boys of American Legion Post 176’s baseball team, the one my father coaches, took their lumps last Wednesday night at Waters Field in Vienna.

I’d watched them lose their first game in the District tournament three days earlier, when the mercury hovered near the 100-degree mark. In conditions that made me want to give in, the kids gave it their all, but it wasn’t enough to beat the tough team from Falls Church. Teetering on the brink of elimination Wednesday night, the Springfield boys lined up on the diamond opposite that same team.

A cold front had moved through, giving us the kind of cool, glorious, humidity-free evening that just might warrant a sweater at some point. But I was sweating it nonetheless. I knew a loss would trigger Dad’s annual “I think this’ll be my last season” speech, and I didn’t want to hear it, not yet. (My father’s been threatening retirement for at least five years, making him the Brett Favre of baseball coaches.)

Not that he won’t have earned it whenever he decides to hang it up, mind you. Dad’s been coaching Springfield’s Legion team of high schoolers since 1993, when my brother, L.J., was on the roster. And he kept coaching long after L.J. left for college. Love for the sport and for those kids motivates him, and I love that about him.

Even a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease in 2007 didn’t force Dad off the field. He kept on pitching batting practice, hitting fly balls to the outfield, and providing a steady stream of encouragement (and jokes and possibly also expletives) in the dugout. But it’s slowed him down a bit. Though Dad’s relatively fortunate to have what neurologists call a “mild” case of PD, even the gentlest form of the disease takes wicked aim at motor skills. As a result, performing the toss/swing/connect cycle that sends a baseball soaring into the outfield has gone from routine to taxing. That strikes a particularly cruel blow for Dad, because tasks that require athleticism rank high on the list of things he enjoys most about coaching. But I doubt that’s what the kids enjoy most about Coach Yank. If you asked them, I bet they’d say it’s his dugout presence. I’ve never experienced Dugout Dad firsthand, but I’ve seen how the kids react to him, and I’m well acquainted with his motivational skills in general. (I can only hope these kids have been treated to some of the same inspirational sayings my siblings and I heard, like the timeless classic, “GET THE LEAD OUT!”) I suspect they want Coach Yank to stay in the game every bit as much as I do. My theory gained support and I choked up a bit when Dad told me this year’s kids had, entirely of their own volition, engineered some sort of solution to make hitting those fly balls a little bit easier.

So I sat in the stands on Wednesday night with my sister Lynne and my friend Bud, hoping the Post 176 boys could find a way to keep the season going, for their own sakes, for Dad’s, and for a daughter who doesn’t ever want her father to admit defeat.

That hope suffered a setback once Falls Church’s bats started making solid contact with alarming regularity. It wilted further when our pitcher struggled to find the strike zone, which the ump apparently put in the dryer because it had shrunk to a cubic inch. When it was Post 176’s turn at the plate, our bats made contact, but most shots landed in places that violated my father’s longstanding “hit it where they ain’t” rule. We managed to put our fair share of ducks on the pond, but they seemed to be the sitting kind: they either went nowhere or got picked off with ease.

I texted these and other updates to Mom, L.J., and my sister Suzi, who couldn’t come to the game but didn’t want to miss any of the action. After four innings, we were down, 3-5. We held Falls Church at bay through two more innings and even put another run on the board in the seventh. With the score 4-5, my hope resurged. I sent an excited text reporting that a tie seemed close at hand.

The Sports Gods, a notoriously perverse bunch, got wind of my text, had a good giggle, and decided to put that tie well beyond reach. When the eighth inning ended, the news wasn’t good.

“Um, 4-10,” I wrote. “If you see some wheels on the side of the road, pick ‘em up because they fell off our wagon.”

Falls Church batted again and picked up two runs, leaving us down, 4-12. I texted, “One touchdown and a 2-point conversion and we’re all set!” My mother responded that 4-12 sounded like a work shift.

The boys of Post 176 went to bat for the last time in the bottom of the ninth, put one more run on the board, and then succumbed. They took it hard, as you do when you play with huge heart only to discover that it can’t compete with big bats and confident gloves.

When I relayed the news to Team Yank, Mom wrote, “Tell Dad he gave it his best shot, now go home and have one.” I laughed, but she’s right: Dad did give it his best shot. He always does, because he doesn’t know any other way. I just hope he decides to give it a shot again next year.

 

dad legion

Coach Yank, chatting with the umps before the game. At least this year I was smart enough not to violate superstition by posting the photo on Facebook during the game. Then again, that tie-related text was not my best move.